Red Wings fans are famous for spending far too much time worrying about the goaltending situation. Dominik Hasek is probably the only goalie who has escaped the paranoid eyes of Red Wing nation over the last 20 years. Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood, Curtis Joseph and Jimmy Howard have all been second-guessed, doubted and mentally replaced by the worried warriors who wear their red and white every spring.
This season, thanks to exceptional play by Howard, that worrying has taken a break. Howard has been so good that he earned a starting spot at the All-Star game even though his name inexplicably didn’t appear on the ballot. Howard leads all NHL goaltenders in wins (32), which is nothing new for him, he was among the league leaders in wins last season as well. What’s impressive is his improvement in other numbers. He’s sixth in goals against (2.03) and tenth in save percentage (.924). Last season, he was 36th in goals against and 33rd in save percentage. In other words, fans had plenty of reason to be concerned about Howard a year ago. This year, there is no concern.
But something has to fill that void, right? It’s not as if fans can simply accept the fact that their goaltending is solid. Their team is in first place. And all seems ripe for a nice deep playoff run in the spring. SOMETHING has to be wrong with this team, doesn’t it? So that brings us to the backup goaltending. The NFL is done. Baseball is two months away. The Pistons are awful. We need something to worry about. So we turn our attention to Ty Conklin, Joey MacDonald or (perhaps) Evgeni Nabokov.
Frankly, I don’t get it. This reminds me a lot of the Shaun Hill/Drew Stanton debate last season when Matthew Stafford was out with a separated shoulder. Many fans agonized over who should back up Stafford in case he went down again. This ignored the obvious point that was proven this season for the Lions – if Stafford is hurt, the Lions are doomed. I’m not saying that the backup position is irrelevant. I’m just saying that it’s only relevant in terms of “Who will be taking snaps at the end of a 7-9 season?” I highly doubt that either Stanton or Hill would have thrown for 5000 yards this year. But who knows? Maybe I’m just being pessimistic.
But along those lines, Howard has been so good this season, that if he goes down, the Red Wings are in serious trouble. There is no insurance policy for this occurrence. If Ken Holland can improve the position behind Howard and has the money to do it under the cap (which he does), then he should do it. I’m not suggesting he simply stand pat. But what I am saying is that this is Jimmy Howard’s team and any thought of a Cup run with a backup goaltender is silly.
“Silly?” you sneer. “Do you not remember 2008 when a little known backup named Chris Osgood replaced Hasek in the first round and took the Wings all the way to the Cup?” Yes. I do remember that well. I also remember that Osgood had won two Cups already (one as a starter). I remember that Osgood started more games during the regular season that year than Hasek did. And I remember that Osgood was so good that he started for the Western Conference All-Star team. That’s one heck of a “back-up” goaltender. Osgood was so good that many people wondered aloud if he should have started the playoffs from the beginning instead of Hasek. A 2-2 tie with the Preds in round one quickly answered that question and the rest was history.
So let’s be clear about something in this debate. Chris Osgood isn’t walking through that door. Nabokov is clearly an upgrade over Conklin, particularly how Conklin is playing this season. But Nabokov’s career playoff record is sketchy (40-38, .913 save percentage). And his performance for the Russian team at the 2010 Winter Olympics was abysmal (4.16 GAA. Starter in the quarterfinals when Russia lost to Canada 7-3). If you have an elimination game, is this the guy you want between the pipes?
Is Nabokov a better option than Conklin? Yes. But we can all agree that the only (stress ONLY) option that has the Wings hoisting the Cup in June is a healthy Jimmy Howard. So worry about the backup goaltending situation if you must. But don’t worry too much. The far bigger worry is Howard’s health and maintaining it. It’s not irrelevant who backs him up. But it’s only relevant in terms of “Who will be in goal when the Wings get knocked out of the playoffs in the first or second round?”